Trump and the Russian Mob

The September issue of The New Republic features this cover image:


In the following Democracy Now interview, Craig Unger, author of the New Republic article, talks about his research on Trump and the Russian mob.

Who Benefits from the Russian Hacking Story? Centrist Democrats.

Compelling new evidence suggests that there was no hack of DNC servers (by Russia or by anyone else), but rather someone inside the DNC copied a mass of data onto a thumb drive. This explanation is supported by metadata showing that the transfer rate of the “hacked” data was on the order of 23 megabytes/second (twice the average rate of ISP servers in 2016, but a typical rate for transfer to a thumb drive). There’s more evidence in the article below.

I have no doubt that Putin and Russian hackers are capable and guilty of many scurrilous acts, and that Trump has many suspicious connections with Russian oligarchs and mob figures, but this particular story has smelled rotten from the beginning. Cui bono? Who benefits from the idea of Russians messing with our election? Primarily the centrist Democrats who want a good explanation for why they lost, and who want to do anything rather than examine their own shortcomings and the need to reform the party from the bottom up.

” … the highest average ISP speeds of first-half 2016 were achieved by Xfinity and Cox Communications. These speeds averaged 15.6 megabytes per second and 14.7 megabytes per second, respectively. Peak speeds at higher rates were recorded intermittently but still did not reach the required 22.7 megabytes per second.

“A speed of 22.7 megabytes is simply unobtainable, especially if we are talking about a transoceanic data transfer,” Folden said. “Based on the data we now have, what we’ve been calling a hack is impossible.” Last week Forensicator reported on a speed test he conducted more recently. It tightens the case considerably. “Transfer rates of 23 MB/s (Mega Bytes per second) are not just highly unlikely, but effectively impossible to accomplish when communicating over the Internet at any significant distance,” he wrote. “Further, local copy speeds are measured, demonstrating that 23 MB/s is a typical transfer rate when using a USB–2 flash device (thumb drive).”

“Time stamps in the metadata provide further evidence of what happened on July 5. The stamps recording the download indicate that it occurred in the Eastern Daylight Time Zone at approximately 6:45 pm. This confirms that the person entering the DNC system was working somewhere on the East Coast of the United States. In theory the operation could have been conducted from Bangor or Miami or anywhere in between—but not Russia, Romania, or anywhere else outside the EDT zone. Combined with Forensicator’s findings on the transfer rate, the time stamps constitute more evidence that the download was conducted locally, since delivery overheads—conversion of data into packets, addressing, sequencing times, error checks, and the like—degrade all data transfers conducted via the Internet, more or less according to the distance involved.”

Read the full article here:
“A New Report Raises Big Questions About Last Year’s DNC Hack: Former NSA experts say it wasn’t a hack at all, but a leak—an inside job by someone with access to the DNC’s system”

America Last: Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first.  When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort.  He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability.  He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore.  And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington.  The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish.  He sensed that, too.  He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.”  And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.”  And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had.  The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do.  In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery.  He answered the $64,000 question.  (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.)  He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire.  He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here.  He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory.  It could prove to be a fall for the ages.  Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage.  Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers.  It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.”  It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it.  It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World

As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon.  Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable.  Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory.  Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today.  They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way.  (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.)  To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices.  In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades.  If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal.  While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster.  This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East.  They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same.  More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse.  Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance.  Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”).  Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement.  It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time.  When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push.  It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.

Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election.  It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel.  It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror.  It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch.  It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked.  Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was.  It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation?  Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster?  Will it truly be one for the record books?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

 

Ordinary Americans carried out inhumane acts for Trump

By Chris Edelson

Baltimore_Demonstrator“A week ago, men and women went to work at airports around the United States as they always do. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, perhaps dropped off their kids at school. Then they reported to their jobs as federal government employees, where, according to news reports, one of them handcuffed a 5-year-old child, separated him from his mother and detained him alone for several hours at Dulles airport.

“At least one other federal employee at Dulles reportedly detained a woman who was traveling with her two children, both U.S. citizens, for 20 hours without food. A relative says the mother was handcuffed (even when she went to the bathroom) and threatened with deportation to Somalia.”

Read the full article in the Baltimore Sun, here.


Chris Edelson (edelson@american.edu) is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in May 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Many from the Washington Power Elite Are United in Their Dismay About Trump’s White House

Democrats, Republicans and military leaders balk at the president’s recklessness.

Trump Is Carpet-Bombing U.S. Foreign Policy

Already Trump is super-charging U.S. militarism, gutting diplomacy, and punishing the victims of wars Washington started.

By ,
Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus, under a Creative Commons Attribution License

democrats-republicans-foreign-policy-militarism

(Image: AK Rockefeller / Flickr)

Very soon, Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order regarding refugees and entry to the U.S. for a whole swathe of people. In effect, the edict would be aimed at banning Muslims from the United States, demonizing people from Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

It’s no accident that of the seven countries identified, the U.S. is bombing five (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia), has troops deployed and military bases in another (Sudan), and imposes harsh sanctions and frequent threats against the last (Iran).

These military actions all reflect policies that fuel refugee flows in the first place. In a grim irony, the order bans refugees from wars that in many cases the U.S. itself started.

The order violates international law requiring countries to provide refuge to those in desperate need, and completely reverses the long history of the U.S. claim — however often that claim is actually denied — to be a country that welcomes refugees and immigrants.

We should also note that the list of Muslim-majority countries targeted in the new regulations all happen to be countries where the Trump business empire has no holdings. Exceptions just happen to be countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Muslim-majority states where Trump has major investments and business partnerships.

One might think that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that nearly all the 9/11 hijackers came from — and which are currently known to be backing ISIS and other terrorists, in Saudi Arabia’s case, and facing serious terror attacks on their own soil largely in response to government repression, in Egypt’s — would be included in Trump’s twisted analysis as potential sources of terrorism.

But no, those countries were ignored. Conflicts of interest? Nah, just a coincidence.

The order goes on to call for the Pentagon to create a “safe zone in Syria and in the region” to absorb local refugees, to prevent them from heading to Europe and beyond to the U.S. Yet almost inevitably, that means launching more airstrikes on the country — a recipe for more war and more refugees.

This is the opposite of what we should be doing. If we’re serious about taking care of refugees and ending the conditions that give rise to their plight, we must welcome far more of the 65 million people currently displaced in the world. And crucially, we must provide real support — not with more war, but by working to end the wars that create refugees in the first place.

That means demanding that our government privilege diplomacy over war. The Obama administration’s successes in foreign policy — the Paris climate agreement, the moves towards normalization with Cuba, and most especially the nuclear deal with Iran — all emerged from hard-fought campaigns to choose diplomatic over military means.

And even if anyone near the top of the new administration were interested in diplomacy (though there’s no evidence of that!), it just got a whole lot harder.

The soon-to-be-signed executive order creates a lot more work for federal workers, especially in the Department of Homeland Security and in the State Department. Yet the entire top echelon of the State Department’s management just quit and walked out. There are conflicting stories about whether these leaders, who weren’t political appointees, were pushed out by new political leaders or left on their own after being presented with unacceptable demands. But either way, State is now severely understaffed in key areas such as consular services.

For those of us convinced that real internationalism should be the basis of U.S. foreign policy, the State Department has never been a full-fledged ally. U.S. diplomacy is too often deployed in the interest of military goals, U.S. corporate profits, and the undermining of governments deemed insufficiently submissive to U.S. strategic interests — and too rarely in compliance with international law.

But diplomacy and multilateralism, however flawed, are still the key alternatives to military force. Getting rid of the key civil servants who kept U.S. diplomacy functioning fits far too well into the opposite goal — privileging war over diplomacy.

The new president’s budget calls for the Pentagon to get a huge influx of new funds, beyond the $600 billion or so base budget it already has (a figure that doesn’t include the funds that support the nuclear arsenal, care for veterans, or even the war on terror, which run several hundred billion dollars more). The military forces are about to get a lot bigger. And the nuclear arsenal is about to get an enormous influx of money for “modernization.”

Combine that with a State Department more or less incapable of doing anything because they’ve lost all the people who actually know how to make diplomacy happen, and you have a perfect storm of war winning out over diplomacy.

It’s kind of like the way elites have carried out neoliberal policies of privatization and de-regulation: You de-fund and under-staff the public agencies, while shifting money to now deregulated private sector entities. Then you watch while the government agencies fail, thus “proving” that government can’t do anything nearly as well as the private sector.

Only in this case, it’s not the public that fails while the private succeeds. It’s diplomacy that fails while the military wins out. Which means everyone loses.


Middle East expert Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Age of Disintegration: Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World

By Patrick Cockburn

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt:

Here’s an unavoidable fact: we are now in a Brexit world. We are seeing the first signs of a major fragmentation of this planet that, until recently, the cognoscenti were convinced was globalizing rapidly and headed for unifications of all sorts. If you want a single figure that catches the grim spirit of our moment, it’s 65 million. That’s the record-setting number of people that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates were displaced in 2015 by “conflict and persecution,” one of every 113 inhabitants of the planet. That’s more than were generated in the wake of World War II at a time when significant parts of the globe had been devastated. Of the 21 million refugees among them, 51% were children (often separated from their parents and lacking any access to education). Most of the displaced of 2015 were, in fact, internal refugees, still in their own often splintered states. Almost half of those who fled across borders have come from three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), and Somalia (1.1 million).

Despite the headlines about refugees heading for Europe — approximately a million of them made it there last year (with more dying on the way) — most of the uprooted who leave their homelands end up in poor or economically mid-level neighboring lands, with Turkey at 2.5 million refugees leading the way. In this fashion, the disruption of spreading conflicts and chaos, especially across the Greater Middle East and Africa, only brings more conflict and chaos with it wherever those refugees are forced to go.

And keep in mind that, as extreme as that 65 million figure may seem, it undoubtedly represents the beginning, not the end, of a process. For one thing, it doesn’t even include the estimated 19 million people displaced last year by extreme weather events and other natural disasters. Yet in coming decades, the heating of our planet, with attendant weather extremes (like the present heat wave in the American West) and rising sea levels, will undoubtedly produce its own waves of new refugees, only adding to both the conflicts and the fragmentation.

As Patrick Cockburn points out today, we have entered “an age of disintegration.” And he should know. There may be no Western reporter who has covered the grim dawn of that age in the Greater Middle East and North Africa — from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria to Libya — more fully or movingly than he has over this last decade and a half. His latest book, Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East, gives a vivid taste of his reporting and of a world that is at present cracking under the pressure of the conflicts he has witnessed. And imagine that so much of this began, at the bargain-basement cost of a mere $400,000 to $500,000, with 19 (mainly Saudi) fanatics, and a few hijacked airliners. Osama bin Laden must be smiling in his watery grave. Tom

The Age of Disintegration
Neoliberalism, Interventionism, the Resource Curse, and a Fragmenting World
By Patrick Cockburn

We live in an age of disintegration. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Across the vast swath of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, there are at least seven ongoing wars — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan. These conflicts are extraordinarily destructive. They are tearing apart the countries in which they are taking place in ways that make it doubtful they will ever recover. Cities like Aleppo in Syria, Ramadi in Iraq, Taiz in Yemen, and Benghazi in Libya have been partly or entirely reduced to ruins. There are also at least three other serious insurgencies: in southeast Turkey, where Kurdish guerrillas are fighting the Turkish army, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula where a little-reported but ferocious guerrilla conflict is underway, and in northeast Nigeria and neighboring countries where Boko Haram continues to launch murderous attacks.

All of these have a number of things in common: they are endless and seem never to produce definitive winners or losers. (Afghanistan has effectively been at war since 1979, Somalia since 1991.) They involve the destruction or dismemberment of unified nations, their de facto partition amid mass population movements and upheavals — well publicized in the case of Syria and Iraq, less so in places like South Sudan where more than 2.4 million people have been displaced in recent years.

Add in one more similarity, no less crucial for being obvious: in most of these countries, where Islam is the dominant religion, extreme Salafi-Jihadi movements, including the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaeda, and the Taliban are essentially the only available vehicles for protest and rebellion. By now, they have completely replaced the socialist and nationalist movements that predominated in the twentieth century; these years have, that is, seen a remarkable reversion to religious, ethnic, and tribal identity, to movements that seek to establish their own exclusive territory by the persecution and expulsion of minorities.

In the process and under the pressure of outside military intervention, a vast region of the planet seems to be cracking open. Yet there is very little understanding of these processes in Washington. This was recently well illustrated by the protest of 51 State Department diplomats against President Obama’s Syrian policy and their suggestion that air strikes be launched targeting Syrian regime forces in the belief that President Bashar al-Assad would then abide by a ceasefire. The diplomats’ approach remains typically simpleminded in this most complex of conflicts, assuming as it does that the Syrian government’s barrel-bombing of civilians and other grim acts are the “root cause of the instability that continues to grip Syria and the broader region.”

It is as if the minds of these diplomats were still in the Cold War era, as if they were still fighting the Soviet Union and its allies. Against all the evidence of the last five years, there is an assumption that a barely extant moderate Syrian opposition would benefit from the fall of Assad, and a lack of understanding that the armed opposition in Syria is entirely dominated by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda clones.

Though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is now widely admitted to have been a mistake (even by those who supported it at the time), no real lessons have been learned about why direct or indirect military interventions by the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East over the last quarter century have all only exacerbated violence and accelerated state failure.

A Mass Extinction of Independent States

The Islamic State, just celebrating its second anniversary, is the grotesque outcome of this era of chaos and conflict. That such a monstrous cult exists at all is a symptom of the deep dislocation societies throughout that region, ruled by corrupt and discredited elites, have suffered. Its rise — and that of various Taliban and al-Qaeda-style clones — is a measure of the weakness of its opponents.

The Iraqi army and security forces, for example, had 350,000 soldiers and 660,000 police on the books in June 2014 when a few thousand Islamic State fighters captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, which they still hold. Today the Iraqi army, security services, and about 20,000 Shia paramilitaries backed by the massive firepower of the United States and allied air forces have fought their way into the city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, against the resistance of IS fighters who may have numbered as few as 900. In Afghanistan, the resurgence of the Taliban, supposedly decisively defeated in 2001, came about less because of the popularity of that movement than the contempt with which Afghans came to regard their corrupt government in Kabul.

Everywhere nation states are enfeebled or collapsing, as authoritarian leaders battle for survival in the face of mounting external and internal pressures. This is hardly the way the region was expected to develop. Countries that had escaped from colonial rule in the second half of the twentieth century were supposed to become more, not less, unified as time passed.

Between 1950 and 1975, nationalist leaders came to power in much of the previously colonized world. They promised to achieve national self-determination by creating powerful independent states through the concentration of whatever political, military, and economic resources were at hand. Instead, over the decades, many of these regimes transmuted into police states controlled by small numbers of staggeringly wealthy families and a coterie of businessmen dependent on their connections to such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

In recent years, such countries were also opened up to the economic whirlwind of neoliberalism, which destroyed any crude social contract that existed between rulers and ruled. Take Syria. There, rural towns and villages that had once supported the Baathist regime of the al-Assad family because it provided jobs and kept the prices of necessities low were, after 2000, abandoned to market forces skewed in favor of those in power. These places would become the backbone of the post-2011 uprising. At the same time, institutions like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that had done so much to enhance the wealth and power of regional oil producers in the 1970s have lost their capacity for united action.

The question for our moment: Why is a “mass extinction” of independent states taking place in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond? Western politicians and media often refer to such countries as “failed states.” The implication embedded in that term is that the process is a self-destructive one. But several of the states now labeled “failed” like Libya only became so after Western-backed opposition movements seized power with the support and military intervention of Washington and NATO, and proved too weak to impose their own central governments and so a monopoly of violence within the national territory.

In many ways, this process began with the intervention of a U.S.-led coalition in Iraq in 2003 leading to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the shutting down of his Baathist Party, and the disbanding of his military. Whatever their faults, Saddam and Libya’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi were clearly demonized and blamed for all ethnic, sectarian, and regional differences in the countries they ruled, forces that were, in fact, set loose in grim ways upon their deaths.

A question remains, however: Why did the opposition to autocracy and to Western intervention take on an Islamic form and why were the Islamic movements that came to dominate the armed resistance in Iraq and Syria in particular so violent, regressive, and sectarian? Put another way, how could such groups find so many people willing to die for their causes, while their opponents found so few? When IS battle groups were sweeping through northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, soldiers who had thrown aside their uniforms and weapons and deserted that country’s northern cities would justify their flight by saying derisively: “Die for [then-Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki? Never!”

A common explanation for the rise of Islamic resistance movements is that the socialist, secularist, and nationalist opposition had been crushed by the old regimes’ security forces, while the Islamists were not. In countries like Libya and Syria, however, Islamists were savagely persecuted, too, and they still came to dominate the opposition. And yet, while these religious movements were strong enough to oppose governments, they generally have not proven strong enough to replace them.

Too Weak to Win, But Too Strong to Lose

Though there are clearly many reasons for the present disintegration of states and they differ somewhat from place to place, one thing is beyond question: the phenomenon itself is becoming the norm across vast reaches of the planet.

If you’re looking for the causes of state failure in our time, the place to start is undoubtedly with the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago. Once it was over, neither the U.S. nor the new Russia that emerged from the Soviet Union’s implosion had a significant interest in continuing to prop up “failed states,” as each had for so long, fearing that the rival superpower and its local proxies would otherwise take over. Previously, national leaders in places like the Greater Middle East had been able to maintain a degree of independence for their countries by balancing between Moscow and Washington. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, this was no longer feasible.

In addition, the triumph of neoliberal free-market economics in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse added a critical element to the mix. It would prove far more destabilizing than it looked at the time.

Again, consider Syria. The expansion of the free market in a country where there was neither democratic accountability nor the rule of law meant one thing above all: plutocrats linked to the nation’s ruling family took anything that seemed potentially profitable. In the process, they grew staggeringly wealthy, while the denizens of Syria’s impoverished villages, country towns, and city slums, who had once looked to the state for jobs and cheap food, suffered. It should have surprised no one that those places became the strongholds of the Syrian uprising after 2011. In the capital, Damascus, as the reign of neoliberalism spread, even the lesser members of the mukhabarat, or secret police, found themselves living on only $200 to $300 a month, while the state became a machine for thievery.

This sort of thievery and the auctioning off of the nation’s patrimony spread across the region in these years. The new Egyptian ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, merciless toward any sign of domestic dissent, was typical. In a country that once had been a standard bearer for nationalist regimes the world over, he didn’t hesitate this April to try to hand over two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia on whose funding and aid his regime is dependent. (To the surprise of everyone, an Egyptian court recently overruled Sisi’s decision.)

That gesture, deeply unpopular among increasingly impoverished Egyptians, was symbolic of a larger change in the balance of power in the Middle East: once the most powerful states in the region — Egypt, Syria, and Iraq — had been secular nationalists and a genuine counterbalance to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf monarchies. As those secular autocracies weakened, however, the power and influence of the Sunni fundamentalist monarchies only increased. If 2011 saw rebellion and revolution spread across the Greater Middle East as the Arab Spring briefly blossomed, it also saw counterrevolution spread, funded by those oil-rich absolute Gulf monarchies, which were never going to tolerate democratic secular regime change in Syria or Libya.

Add in one more process at work making such states ever more fragile: the production and sale of natural resources — oil, gas, and minerals — and the kleptomania that goes with it. Such countries often suffer from what has become known as “the resources curse”: states increasingly dependent for revenues on the sale of their natural resources — enough to theoretically provide the whole population with a reasonably decent standard of living — turn instead into grotesquely corrupt dictatorships. In them, the yachts of local billionaires with crucial connections to the regime of the moment bob in harbors surrounded by slums running with raw sewage. In such nations, politics tends to focus on elites battling and maneuvering to steal state revenues and transfer them as rapidly as possible out of the country.

This has been the pattern of economic and political life in much of sub-Saharan Africa from Angola to Nigeria. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, a somewhat different system exists, one usually misunderstood by the outside world. There is similarly great inequality in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with similarly kleptocratic elites. They have, however, ruled over patronage states in which a significant part of the population is offered jobs in the public sector in return for political passivity or support for the kleptocrats.

In Iraq with a population of 33 million people, for instance, no less than seven million of them are on the government payroll, thanks to salaries or pensions that cost the government $4 billion a month. This crude way of distributing oil revenues to the people has often been denounced by Western commentators and economists as corruption. They, in turn, generally recommend cutting the number of these jobs, but this would mean that all, rather than just part, of the state’s resource revenues would be stolen by the elite. This, in fact, is increasingly the case in such lands as oil prices bottom out and even the Saudi royals begin to cut back on state support for the populace.

Neoliberalism was once believed to be the path to secular democracy and free-market economies. In practice, it has been anything but. Instead, in conjunction with the resource curse, as well as repeated military interventions by Washington and its allies, free-market economics has profoundly destabilized the Greater Middle East. Encouraged by Washington and Brussels, twenty-first-century neoliberalism has made unequal societies ever more unequal and helped transform already corrupt regimes into looting machines. This is also, of course, a formula for the success of the Islamic State or any other radical alternative to the status quo. Such movements are bound to find support in impoverished or neglected regions like eastern Syria or eastern Libya.

Note, however, that this process of destabilization is by no means confined to the Greater Middle East and North Africa. We are indeed in the age of destabilization, a phenomenon that is on the rise globally and at present spreading into the Balkans and Eastern Europe (with the European Union ever less able to influence events there). People no longer speak of European integration, but of how to prevent the complete break-up of the European Union in the wake of the British vote to leave.

The reasons why a narrow majority of Britons voted for Brexit have parallels with the Middle East: the free-market economic policies pursued by governments since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister have widened the gap between rich and poor and between wealthy cities and much of the rest of the country. Britain might be doing well, but millions of Britons did not share in the prosperity. The referendum about continued membership in the European Union, the option almost universally advocated by the British establishment, became the catalyst for protest against the status quo. The anger of the “Leave” voters has much in common with that of Donald Trump supporters in the United States.

The U.S. remains a superpower, but is no longer as powerful as it once was. It, too, is feeling the strains of this global moment, in which it and its local allies are powerful enough to imagine they can get rid of regimes they do not like, but either they do not quite succeed, as in Syria, or succeed but cannot replace what they have destroyed, as in Libya. An Iraqi politician once said that the problem in his country was that parties and movements were “too weak to win, but too strong to lose.” This is increasingly the pattern for the whole region and is spreading elsewhere. It carries with it the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability that has already begun.


Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London and the author of five books on the Middle East, the latest of which is Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East(OR Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Cockburn

Thomas Frank: How the Democrats Created a “Liberalism of the Rich”

By Thomas Frank, author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler. Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior — when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.

Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.

The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation — in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech — and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.

Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country — probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.

The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”

Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.

Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.

To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has madethis city so very rich.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage — with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.

Seething City on a Cliff

You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.

Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually — there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.

Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”

The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns — not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.

Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities — an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages — will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.

But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.

The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening

If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative — a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” — “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” — which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.

This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.

And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama — who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.

As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”

What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce — standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.

On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path — for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.

A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney — and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told theWall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.

Entrepreneurs First

At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?

The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.

Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.

This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler.

Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank


 

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Are We in a New American World?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted with permission from Tommdispatch.com

The other week, feeling sick, I spent a day on my couch with the TV on and was reminded of an odd fact of American life. More than seven months before Election Day, you can watch the 2016 campaign for the presidency at any moment of your choosing, and that’s been true since at least late last year. There is essentially never a time when some network or news channel isn’t reporting on, discussing, debating, analyzing, speculating about, or simply drooling over some aspect of the primary campaign, of Hillary, Bernie, Ted, and above all — a million times above all — The Donald (from the violence at his rallies to the size of his hands). In case you’re young and think this is more or less the American norm, it isn’t. Or wasn’t.

Truly, there is something new under the sun. Of course, in 1994 with O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase (95 million viewers!), the 24/7 media event arrived full blown in American life and something changed when it came to the way we focused on our world and the media focused on us. But you can be sure of one thing: never in the history of television, or any other form of media, has a single figure garnered the amount of attention — hour after hour, day after day, week after week — as Donald Trump. If he’s the O.J. Simpson of twenty-first-century American politics and his run for the presidency is the eternal white Ford Bronco chase of our moment, then we’re in a truly strange world.

Or let me put it another way: this is not an election. I know the word “election” is being used every five seconds and somewhere along the line significant numbers of Americans (particularly, this season, Republicans) continue to enter voting booths or in the case of primary caucuses, school gyms and the like, to choose among various candidates, so it’s all still election-like. But take my word for it as a 71-year-old guy who’s been watching our politics for decades: this is not an election of the kind the textbooks once taught us was so crucial to American democracy. If, however, you’re sitting there waiting for me to tell you what it is, take a breath and don’t be too disappointed. I have no idea, though it’s certainly part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.

Actually, before we go further, let me hedge my bets on the idea that Donald Trump is a twenty-first-century O.J. Simpson. It’s certainly a reasonable enough comparison, but I’ve begun to wonder about the usefulness of just about any comparison in our present situation. Even the most nightmarish of them — Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or any past extreme demagogue of your choice — may actually prove to be covert gestures of consolation, reassurance, and comfort. Yes, what’s happening in our world is increasingly extreme and could hardly be weirder, we seem to have the urge to say, but it’s still recognizable. It’s something we’ve encountered before, something we’ve made sense of in the past and, in the process, overcome.

Round Up the Usual SuspectsBut what if that’s not true?  In some ways, the most frightening, least acceptable thing to say about our American world right now — even if Donald Trump’s overwhelming presence all but begs us to say it — is that we’ve entered uncharted territory and, under the circumstances, comparisons might actually impair our ability to come to grips with our new reality.  My own suspicion: Donald Trump is only the most obvious instance of this, the example no one can miss.In these first years of the twenty-first century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system.  As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can’t bear to recognize it for what it might be.  When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell — the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack), and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier, and more dysfunctional version of the known.

Perhaps, however, it’s increasingly a version of the unknown.  We say, for instance, that Congress is “paralyzed,” and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so “polarized,” and we wait for something to shake us loose from that “paralysis,” to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize.  But maybe this is it.  Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we’re now labeling paralysis.  Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied, and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.

Of course, I don’t want to deny that much of what is “new” in our world has a long history.  The present yawning inequality gap between the 1% and ordinary Americans first began to widen in the 1970s and — as Thomas Frank explains so brilliantly in his new book, Listen, Liberal — was already a powerful and much-discussed reality in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton ran for president.  Yes, that gap is now more like an abyss and looks ever more permanently embedded in the American system, but it has a genuine history, as for instance do 1% elections and the rise and self-organization of the “billionaire class,” even if no one, until this second, imagined that government of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires might devolve into government of the billionaire, by the billionaire, and for the billionaire — that is, just one of them.

Indeed, much of our shape-shifting world can be written about as a set of comparisons and in terms of historical reference points.  Inequality has a history.  The military-industrial complex and the all-volunteer military, like the warrior corporation, weren’t born yesterday; neither was our state of perpetual war, nor the national security state that now looms over Washington, nor its surveilling urge, the desire to know far too much about the private lives of Americans.  (A little bow of remembrance to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is in order here.)

And yet, true as all that may be, Washington increasingly seems like a new land, sporting something like a new system in the midst of our much-described polarized and paralyzed politics.  The national security state doesn’t seem faintly paralyzed or polarized to me.  Nor does the Pentagon.  On certain days when I catch the news, I can’t believe how strange and yet humdrum this uncharted new territory is.  Remind me, for instance, where in the Constitution the Founding Fathers wrote about that national security state?  And yet there it is in all its glory, all its powers, an ever more independent force in our nation’s capital.  In what way, for instance, did those men of the revolutionary era prepare the ground for the Pentagon to loose its spy drones from our distant war zones over the United States?  And yet, so it has.  And no one even seems disturbed by the development.  The news, barely noticed or noted, was instantly absorbed into what’s becoming the new normal.

Graduation Ceremonies in the Imperium

Let me mention here the almost random piece of news that recently made me wonder just what planet I was actually on.  And I know you won’t believe it, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.

Given the carnage of America’s wars and conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa, which I’ve been following closely these last years, I’m unsure why this particular moment even got to me.  Best guess?  Maybe that, of all the once-obscure places — from Afghanistan to Yemen to Libya — in which the U.S. has been fighting recently, Somalia, where this particular little slaughter took place, seems to me like the most obscure of all.  Yes, I’ve been half-attending to events there from the 1993 Blackhawk Down moment to the disastrous U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of 2006 to the hardly less disastrous invasion of that country by Kenyan and other African forces. Still, Somalia?

Recently, U.S. Reaper drones and manned aircraft launched a set of strikes against what the Pentagon claimed was a graduation ceremony for “low-level” foot soldiers in the Somali terror group al-Shabab.  It was proudly announced that more than 150 Somalis had died in this attack.  In a country where, in recent years, U.S. drones and special ops forces had carried out a modest number of strikes against individual al-Shabab leaders, this might be thought of as a distinct escalation of Washington’s endless low-level conflict there (with a raid involving U.S. special ops forces following soon after).

Now, let me try to put this in some personal context.  Since I was a kid, I’ve always liked globes and maps.  I have a reasonable sense of where most countries on this planet are.  Still, Somalia?  I have to stop and give that one some thought to truly locate it on a mental map of eastern Africa.  Most Americans?  Honestly, I doubt they’d have a clue.  So the other day, when this news came out, I stopped a moment to take it in.  If accurate, we killed 150 more or less nobodies (except to those who knew them) and maybe even a top leader or two in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map.

I mean, don’t you find that just a little odd, no matter how horrible the organization they were preparing to fight for?  150 Somalis?  Blam!

Remind me: On just what basis was this modest massacre carried out?  After all, the U.S. isn’t at war with Somalia or with al-Shabab.  Of course, Congress no longer plays any real role in decisions about American war making.  It no longer declares war on any group or country we fight.  (Paralysis!)  War is now purely a matter of executive power or, in reality, the collective power of the national security state and the White House.  The essential explanation offered for the Somali strike, for instance, is that the U.S. had a small set of advisers stationed with African Union forces in that country and it was just faintly possible that those guerrilla graduates might soon prepare to attack some of those forces (and hence U.S. military personnel).  It seems that if the U.S. puts advisers in place anywhere on the planet — and any day of any year they are now in scores of countries — that’s excuse enough to validate acts of war based on the “imminent” threat of their attack.

Or just think of it this way: a new, informal constitution is being written in these years in Washington.  No need for a convention or a new bill of rights.  It’s a constitution focused on the use of power, especially military power, and it’s being written in blood.

These days, our government (the unparalyzed one) acts regularly on the basis of that informal constitution-in-the-making, committing Somalia-like acts across significant swathes of the planet.  In these years, we’ve been marrying the latest in wonder technology, our Hellfire-missile-armed drones, to executive power and slaughtering people we don’t much like in majority Muslim countries with a certain alacrity. By now, it’s simply accepted that any commander-in-chief is also our assassin-in-chief, and that all of this is part of a wartime-that-isn’t-wartime system, spreading the principle of chaos and dissolution to whole areas of the planet, leaving failed states and terror movements in its wake.

When was it, by the way, that “the people” agreed that the president could appoint himself assassin-in-chief, muster his legal beagles to write new “law” that covered any future acts of his (including the killing of American citizens), and year after year dispatch what essentially is his own private fleet of killer drones to knock off thousands of people across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa?  Weirdly enough, after almost 14 years of this sort of behavior, with ample evidence that such strikes don’t suppress the movements Washington loathes (and often only fan the flames of resentment and revenge that help them spread), neither the current president and his top officials, nor any of the candidates for his office have the slightest intention of ever grounding those drones.

And when exactly did the people say that, within the country’s vast standing military, which now garrisons much of the planet, a force of nearly 70,000 Special Operations personnel should be birthed, or that it should conduct covert missions globally, essentially accountable only to the president (if him)? And what I find strangest of all is that few in our world find such developments strange at all.

A Planet in Decline?

In some way, all of this could be said to work.  At the very least, it is a functioning new system-in-the-making that we have yet to truly come to grips with, just as we haven’t come to grips with a national security state that surveils the world in a way that even science fiction writers (no less totalitarian rulers) of a previous era could never have imagined, or the strange version of media overkill that we still call an election.  All of this is by now both old news and mind-bogglingly new.

Do I understand it? Not for a second.

This is not war as we knew it, nor government as we once understood it, nor are these elections as we once imagined them, nor is this democracy as it used to be conceived of, nor is this journalism of a kind ever taught in a journalism school. This is the definition of uncharted territory. It’s a genuine American terra incognita and yet in some fashion that unknown landscape is already part of our sense of ourselves and our world. In this “election” season, many remain shocked that a leading candidate for the presidency is a demagogue with a visible authoritarian side and what looks like an autocratic bent. All such labels are pinned on Donald Trump, but the new American system that’s been emerging from its chrysalis in these years already has just those tendencies. So don’t blame it all on Donald Trump. He should be far less of a shock to this country than he continues to be.  After all, a Trumpian world-in-formation has paved the way for him.

Who knows?  Perhaps what we’re watching is the new iteration of a very old story: a twenty-first-century version of an ancient tale of a great imperial power, perhaps the greatest ever — the “lone superpower” — sinking into decline.  It’s a tale humanity has experienced often enough in the course of our long history.  But lest you think once again that there’s nothing new under the sun, the context for all of this, for everything now happening in our world, is so new as to be quite literally outside of thousands of years of human experience.  As the latest heat records indicate, we are, for the first time, on a planet in decline.  And if that isn’t uncharted territory, what is?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join him on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt

Today’s Syrian Refugees Are Yesterday’s Irish

Immigrants have built the United States — and that includes Syrians.

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Four months after I arrived to Chicago in 1989, my colleague at the hospital, Dr. Nancy Nora, invited me to her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I was homesick in a new country after graduating from medical school in Damascus. Nancy Nora was an Irish American from a large Catholic family. Her father was a respected local physician.

Nancy told me that it was a tradition in her family to invite a newcomer to the city. After all, Thanksgiving, I learned, celebrated Native Americans welcoming European refugees who fled their homelands due to religious and political persecution.

I came to Chicago from the ancient Syrian city of Homs to pursue advanced medical training. Syrians look to the US as the best place to pursue this training. In fact, almost half of one percent of American doctors are of Syrian origin. There are also famous Syrian actors, playwrights, rappers, chess players, entrepreneurs, scientists, businessmen, and even Republican governors. Every Syrian American is proud that Steve Jobs is the son of a Syrian immigrant. Syrian immigrant Ernest Hamwi inventedthe ice cream cone during the St. Louis World fair in 1904.

“Everyone who enjoys ice cream and an iPhone should feel indebted to Syrian immigrants,” I remind my children. All three have been born in Chicago. The eldest, Adham, ran his first marathon this year—to raise awareness about domestic violence—and aspires to a career in politics. Mahdi is involved in his university’s Students Organizing for Syria (SOS) chapter as well as the Black Lives Matter campaign. Marwa, a high school freshman, is a budding pianist and ran for her school’s cross-country team. They all volunteer in local charity events and for Syria. My wife, Suzanne, the daughter of a Syrian civil engineer and Canadian mother with Irish-Scottish roots, founded theSyrian Community Network (SCN) to help support newly resettled Syrian refugee families in the Chicago area.

Darkness in Syria

To many Syrians, America symbolizes the values that we lack at home: freedom, rule of law, and the respect for human rights. In Syria, my generation knew only one president, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for 30 years with “iron and fire,” as they say in Arabic. He detained and tortured thousands of people who dared to speak out against his rule. He committed massacres, the worst of which in the city of Hama the same year I graduated from high school.

I still remember the atmosphere of fear in Syria. We dared not speak. We were told that the “walls have ears.” My family even prevented me from going to the mosque to pray. Many of my high school friends and relatives disappeared into the dark cells of the infamous Palmyra prison, the site of another infamous massacre by Assad’s ruthless security men.

When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, a classmate of mine from medical school, was appointed to the presidency by a token parliament. People expected change. After all, Syria had a well-educated middle class, a diverse economy, and a reasonably vibrant nonprofit sector. It also had a tradition of democracy, which had its ups and downs between 1920 and1970. Bashar, inexperienced but equally ruthless, disappointed us all. When hundreds of thousands of young Syrians demonstrated peacefully in 2011, thinking naively that the Arab Spring had turned at last to Syria, Assad and his cronies responded with what they knew best: brutality and oppression. More than 250,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have disappeared into the prisons. Half of the population has been displaced. And barrel bombs, cluster bombs, and all kinds of weaponry have leveled entire cities and neighborhoods .

Besides meager humanitarian assistance and empty rhetoric, the international community has stood by mostly idle, watching darkness descend on Syria. It has become one of the worst humanitarian crises in our lifetime. In the ensuing chaos, extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. But the snowballing refugee crisis only captured the world’s attention when it reached the shores of Europe. With the drowning of the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who tried to flee with his family to Greece from Turkey across the Aegean Sea, suddenly Syrian lives mattered.

With the Refugees

I just returned from my last medical mission with my organization, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), to the Greek island of Lesbos. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are making the desperate boat trip from Turkey to Lesbos and other Greek islands. The unfortunate ones are drowning, while the lucky ones must carry on through another 1,200 miles of borders, humiliation, and misery to reach whoever opens the door to them. Germany and Sweden have been the most hospitable, while others are building walls and barbed wire fences along their borders. The Syrian refugees I met were fleeing the recent Russian bombings and Assad’s barrel bombs, while some are fleeing the brutality of the Islamic State. I saw several women, some with toddlers Aylan’s age, who lost their husbands to the war. One woman was crying as she described a public execution by IS that she was forced to witness with her five-year-old son. He has had nightmares since then.

I heard from a Syrian volunteer doctor about a boat with a capacity of 30 people that was stuffed with more than 80 refugees. Each refugee had to pay the smugglers 1,000 to 2,000 euros. It was a cold night when the boat crashed onto the rocky shores and split in half. Children got stuck underneath the boat. Many simply drowned. The Syrian doctor, himself a victim of Assad’s torture and now a refugee in France, described to me how he performed CPR on two small children. One was dead, and one died later. The US presidential candidates and governors who slammed the door in the faces of helpless Syrian refugees should hear these stories. These refugees deserve our sympathy and hospitality.

Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world.Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states. Since the war began, however, only 2,034 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the entire United States. This is a shameful number, considering that there are 4.2 million Syrian refugees. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would impose additional security measures on refugees from Syria, making it nearly impossible to accept more refugees from Iraq and Syria. A similar bill is awaiting a Senate vote.

Nancy Nora’s father, surrounded by his large extended family at the dinner table on that Thanksgiving many years ago, explained to me how Irish Americans were demonized when they first arrived to the United States as refugees. They were maligned by politicians and by the public, and were perceived as a threat. During dark times in our history, the United States has treated newly arriving Jews, Italians, Japanese, and Latinos as a threat. .

As I was leaving the Nora household after that memorable evening, her family wished me good luck with my studies and my new life in America. Suddenly, the cold Chicago night felt very warm. I felt at home.


 

M. Zaher Sahloul, a medical doctor, is the former head of the Syrian American Medical Society, @www.sams-usa.net. Follow at Twitter @sahloul

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